An agreement to be signed today will formalise plans for an Australian–German team of scientists and support staff to undertake an intensive study next summer of the physical and climatic history of Antarctica’s remote southern Prince Charles Mountains.

The study, which seeks to fill major gaps in knowledge of a period when Australia and Antarctica were one continent, will involve travelling over 500km across Antarctica’s ice plateau, inland from the Australian station of Mawson.

Dr Sharman Stone, Parliamentary Secretary for the Australian Antarctic Program, said today the joint project was an excellent opportunity to pool resources to undertake large-scale research.

“We are dealing with a continent nearly twice Australia’s size, with harsh conditions that challenge the best scientists and researchers. This joint project with Germany demonstrates the spirit of cooperation represented by the Antarctic Treaty,” Dr Stone said.

The expedition will begin in December this year with 34 members travelling from Prydz Bay near Davis station to the ultimate destination of Mt Cresswell, accessing rarely traversed parts of Antarctica.

The project, dubbed “PCMEGA” (for Prince Charles Mountains Expedition Germany Australia), will help scientists to identify the geological and glaciological processes occurring in Australia and Antarctica about 120 million years ago, when the two lands were joined in a single continent.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s Rob Easther, project manager for the expedition, said that there had been no major Australian expedition into this region since the mid-1970s.

“Weather records suggest the expeditioners are in for an uncomfortable time, with strong winds and temperatures well below zero,” he said.

“This is a polar expedition in the classic style with scientists living in tents and using mountaineering skills to reach rock samples up sheer cliffs. The simplest of tasks like melting ice for cooking and keeping tents pitched and free of drifting snow are incredibly laborious.”

Field parties will be visiting outlying mountain peaks rising from the polar ice cap, sleeping in tents and travelling roped together to avoid falling into crevasses. The logistics of the project have yet to be finalised, but will probably involve supply of food, fuel and equipment overland from Mawson station.

The expedition is currently scheduled over four months, from December 2002 until March 2003. The agreement with the Federal Institute of Geosciences and Natural Resources, based in Hanover, Germany, will be signed by Dr Tony Press, Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, at AAD headquarters, Kingston, today.